Biography of Captain George Washington Reed

George Washington Reed


The arrival of several of the officers of the Vixen enables us to publish a more particular account of the loss of that vessel, and of the death of her gallant commander, Captain Reed, an officer so eminently entitled to the usual biographical memorial.

He was the youngest son of the late President Reed of Pennsylvania, and received the honor of his name from General Washington at a time when that illustrious person was in habits of confidential intimacy with his father. Such were the early auspices of a man, whom, in the morning of life, an inscrutable Providence has consigned to an untimely death. After receiving a liberal collegiate education and graduating at Princeton, Captain Reed entered the navy and as he regularly rose through all the various stations from midshipman to master and commander, was always distinguished for intrepidity, scientific and practical seamanship, unexceptionable deportment in subordination and in command with every other endowment for the highest rank of that honorable profession, which has just exalted its adepts to the summits of maritime ascendancy at the very moment when the subject of this article had descended into the tomb.

In private life his characteristics were probity, cheerfulness, extensive intellectual acquirements, a most unaffected diffidence of his own sterling merits - together with a general sobriety and chasteness of conduct, a due sense of moral and religious obligation, not always the recommendation, sometimes not even the aim of young gentlemen of the sword.

He acted as 2d Lieut. In the Nautilus in the memorable attack on Tripoli in August 1804 after the death of Captain Somers and 1st Lieut. James Decature took command of that vessel, stood into the harbor with the utmost gallantry and skillfulness and effectually covered the gun-boats in their operations. For his conduct on that occasion, he was noticed by Commodore Preble in his general orders, issued on the termination of that bold and successful enterprise. Lieut. Reed afterwards accompanied General Eaton's detachment to the coast of Africa, and served on board the vessel which co-operated with him on that romantic expedition.

When war was declared against England last summer, Captain Reed solicited employment, though his health was extremely delicate. He was ordered to a command at the southward, whither he repaired immediately, notwithstanding the unhealthiness of the climate at that season. The death of Captain Gadsden preferred him to the command of the brig Vixen. The sea air in a great degree restored his health but it was his peculiarly hard fate to be captured by a force so superior as to preclude any contest (the Southampton frigate), the to be shipwrecked on an inhospitable coast and finally to die a prisoner among strangers. During all these reverses, however, he preserved that equanimity and resolution which never forsook him. When the Southampton and Vixen ran ashore in the night, the English crew became mutinous from intoxication, and what was saved from the wrecks was principally due to the exertions of the American seamen, under the direction and encouragement of Captain Reed. For this generous interposition he received the public acknowledgment of James Yeo, the British commander and an offer of his parole to return home but would not leave his officers and men behind him and chose rather to remain with them in the unwholesome atmosphere of which he was unfortunately the first victim. He died, after four days illness of a fever brought on by the fatigue, anxiety and exposures incident to his painful and mortifying situation. His enemies paid those honors to his remains which the brave of all nations render to each other. His interment was attended by the British officers and a detachment from the garrison, who committed him to the earth with the ceremonies of a military funeral.

The navel annals of his own country, no blazing with recent renown will not withhold a suitable testimonial to the memory of an officer, whose lot it was at such a time to undergo the total frustration of his ambition and shipwreck and captivity and an untimely death. (National Intelligencer.)

[Source: The Centinel (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) May 12 1813 - Contributed by Nancy Piper]

George Washington Reed

George Washington Reed, born in May, 1780, whose brief career, so far as it was public, is not without interest. He was thoroughly educated, and, after being graduated at Princeton College, in 1798, entered the Navy of the United States, as a midshipman. He was soon promoted, and in 1803, was lieutenant of the Nautilus schooner, under the command of Richard Somers, and attached to Preble's Squadron, before Tripoli. Lieutenant Reed was in command of the Nautilus in the attack of the 28th of August, and is referred to with high praise by the Commodore in his official account of that affair. On the night of the 4th of September, Somers undertook the perilous enterprise of entering the harbor of Tripoli, on board the fire-ketch, Intrepid. Its mysterious and fatal result is well known.

" It was eight o'clock," says the biographer of Somers, "in the evening, before the Intrepid lifted her anchor; the Argus, Vixen, Nautilus weighing, and standing in, in company. The night was sufficiently advanced to cover the movement, and all four vessels stood towards the rocks, under their canvass. The last person who left the ketch was Lieutetenant Washington Reed, then first of the Nautilus. This officer did not quit his Commander, until it was thought necessary for him to rejoin the vessel of which he was now in charge. When he went over the side of the Intrepid, all communication between the gallant spirits she contained, and the rest of the world, ceased. At that time everything seemed propitious; Somers was cheerful, though calm; and perfect order and method prevailed in the little craft. The leave-taking was affectionate and serious with the officers, though the common men appeared to be in high spirits. This was about 9 p. M. The Argus and Vixen lay oft' at a little distance from the rocks to attack the galleys or gun-boats, should either attempt to follow the party out in their retreat, while the Nautilus shortened sail, and accompanied the ketch, as close in as was deemed prudent, with the especial intention of bringing off the boats. Lieutenant Reed directed the present Commodore Ridgely, then one of the Nautilus' midshipmen, to watch the ketch's movements, with a night-glass; and as this order was strictly complied with, it is almost certain that this officer was the last person of the American Squadron who saw the vessel. She seemed to be advancing slowly."* In a few minutes later, the ketch exploded under the batteries of Tripoli, and the fate of Somers, and the gallant crew was darkened forever. Somers, Decatur, Reed, and Stewart, the actors and anxious spectators of the doings of that night, were Philadelphia sailors. But one of them now survives.

Lieutenant Reed accompanied General Eaton's detachment to the coast of Africa, and served on board the vessel which co-operated with him on that romantic expedition.

When war was declared against England, Mr. Reed having then been promoted to the grade of Commander, though in extremely delicate health, solicited active service and took command of the Vixen brig-of-war of 12 guns, then fitting for sea in one of our eastern ports. Whilst on a cruise in the West Indies, the Vixen was captured by the Southampton frigate of 32 guns, commanded by Sir James Lucas Yeo. On the night of the capture, both vessels being under heavy press of sail were almost simultaneously wrecked on one of the Bahama keys. The Vixen sank so rapidly, that the prize crew barely had time to save their lives; the American prisoners having been previously transferred to the Southampton. On board the frigate, a scene of great disorder occurred ; the British sailors broke into the spirit-room, and defied all control on the part of their officers, and it was only by the aid of the American prisoners, officers and men, that the mutiny was suppressed.

* Cooper's Naval Biographies, vol. i. p. 107.

Commodore Charles Stewart. Had Mr. Reed lived, he would, at this time, (1847) have been the fourth Post Captain on the Navy List. The list would be James Barren, Charles Stewart, Jacob Jones, George VV. Reed.

On arriving at Jamaica, Sir James Yeo publicly returned thanks for the assistance thus rendered, and at once offered Captain Reed his parole. This was declined on the ground that he would under no circumstances leave his officers and crew, among whom the disease of the climate had already made its appearance, and over whom their commander, himself destined to be its earliest victim, watched with the most affectionate solicitude. Every day, in all the extremity of the climate, he repaired from Spanishtown to Kingston, to be with and relieve the wants of his men. The exposure soon produced its ordinary results, and he was attacked by a tropical fever. His constitution, never very robust, soon yielded, and on the 4th of January, 1813, he died at the early age of thirtythree.* The few survivors, to one of whom I am indebted for many of these particulars, cherish in grateful recollection the unremitting kindness, the almost affectionate attention bestowed by the British army and navy officers, to Captain Reed during his illness, and the honors rendered to his memory by the Governor and garrison. He was followed to his foreign grave by brave enemies, who had learned to do willing justice to the high spirit and generous tone of his character and bearing. Such was the honorable though brief career, which I hope to be excused for here alluding to, of one of Washington's earliest namesakes.

Unwilling to forsake his companions in captivity, he declined

A proffered parole, and sunk under a tropical fever.

This Stone

Is inscribed by the hand of affection as a memorial of

His virtues,

And records the gratitude of his friends for the kind offices

Which, in the season of sickness, and hour

Of death, he received at the hands of

A generous Foe.

* At the time of Captain Reed's death, a very graceful obituary notice of him was published in the National Intelligencer of 28th March, 1813, understood at the time to be from the pen of Mr. Charles J. Ingersoll. To this, and to the recollections of Captain W. M. Hunter of the U. S. Navy, who was the sailingmaster of the Vixen, I am indebted for most of the facts stated in the text. (Cooper's Naval History, vol. ii. p. 256.) In 1828, the Navy Department dispatched a national vessel to Jamaica, whose errand is thus described in a paper of 5th July, 1828, published at Kingston. " We noticed in our last the arrival of the U. S. schooner Grampus. We were not then aware of the precise object of her visit. She was directed to bring out a tomb-stone, to be placed over the grave of Captain Reed, who is buried in the churchyard of Spanishtown.

" Through the indulgence of the gentlemen to whom the stone is addressed, we have had an opportunity of viewing a beautiful slab of marble, with the following feeling record of the remembrance in which the friends of the deceased cherish the kindness shown to him in captivity."


Memory of


Master Commandant in the Navy of the

United States.

Born at Philadelphia, May 26, 1780,

Captured in the United States' brig of war, Vixen,

Under his command,

By H.B.M. Frigate Southampton,

He died a prisoner of war at this place,

January 4, 1813.

As this form is passing through the press, the following letter has reached the author.

Baltimore, April 15th, 1847.


I have yours of the 13th, in relation to my most valued friend, George W. Reed. I wish most sincerely it was in my power to write a reminiscence of him worthy of record, for if genuine sterling merit as an officer, seaman, and gentleman, were ever entitled to a remembrance in history, most certainly he was.

There was no one in the naval service of that day, who was held in higher estimation than himself; he was highly intellectual and an accomplished scholar, an agreeable, social companion, and the warmest of friends. He was first lieutenant of the Nautilus, and in command of her in the different battles had before Tripoli, while Captain Somers was commanding a division of gun-boats. On the night of the fatal explosion of the fircship, which destroyed the entire crew, the Nautilus was directed to follow her in under the batteries on shore, to pick up the boat that was intended to bring Somers and his crew off. The explosion took place between 10 and 11 P. M., and I, as second lieutenant, was requested by Reed to take the night-glass and not lose sight of her. Immediately on the explosion, we hoisted a light, and kept it flying until early dawn, in the hope that if any had survived, they might be found on a spar or plank. During all the time, we were so close in shore, the guns from the forts were firing at us, but in every instance they fell beyond us at least a quarter of a mile. At daylight we stood off to the fleet, and Reed went on board and reported to the Commodore.

I am your friend,


[Source: Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, By His Grandson, William B. Reed, Vol. II, Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston. 1847. C. SHERMAN, PRINTER, 19 St. James Street. Pages 230-233 - Contributed by Nancy Piper]

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